The SS Meteor is the world’s only remaining whaleback steam freighter. She was built in Superior, Wisconsin in 1896 and is now permanently docked there on Barker's Island.
Shipping cargo on the Great Lakes was essential to the industrial development of the United States. Cargo ships brought iron ore to Buffalo, grains to Michigan. The Lakes were, however, extremely dangerous and difficult to navigate. Extreme weather, ice, traffic: all took down ships. Today, scuba divers can visit many wrecks, well-preserved in the cold, freshwater lakes.
In the late 19th century, bulk freight (iron ore, coal, grain) was carried in barges (known as consorts) towed by steamships. In the late 1880s, a Duluth, Minnesota shipbuilder, Captain Alexander McDougall, designed and built a new type of barge, with a cigar-shaped hull which came to be known as the “whaleback”. It had a conoidal bow and stern, and rounded sides which allowed large waves to wash over the ship, and the hull resembled a modern nuclear missle submarine.
The design of the Meteor can be understood as an intermediate step on the way to the super-freighters and supertankers of today. Like today’s freighters, it has a turreted superstructure in aft part of the ship. Cargo was loaded through hatches on top of the deck (rather than gangways in the side of the hull) which facilitated pouring bulk cargos, like grain and iron ore, directly from dockside into the ship. It also proved, unfortunately, to be one of the disadvantages of the whaleback design, since waves could more easily wash into the hold when the hatches were unsecured.
By the late 1890’s, McDougall had relocated his shipbuilding facilities across the harbor from Duluth to Superior, Wisconsin, and constructed whaleback steamers as well as consorts, and had even produced a whaleback passenger ship, the Christopher Columbus, for the Chicago Exposition of 1893.
The only surviving whaleback above water is the SS Meteor, formerly the Frank Rockefeller. (In the Panic of 1893, the Rockefellers had ended up up owning substantial iron ore reserves in Wisconsin. Great Lakes ships were often named after owners, patrons, or in this case, an important customer's brother. The Edmund Fitzgerald, for example, was named after the Chairman of the insurance company which owned the frieghter). The Meteor was converted into an oil tanker in the 1940’s, continued in service until 1969. The Meteor was purchased by the city of Superior in 1972 and set on Barkers Island in the Superior Harbor in 1973 as a museum.
The SS Meteor:
Stereoscopic Image of loading grain on a Whaleback Freighter, Chicago, Illinois: http://web.ulib.csuohio.edu/SpecColl/stereos/shipping/3dv18440.html
Whalebacks at the Soo Locks (between Superior and Huron): http://www.mormac.com/history/hist04.htm
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